Do you ever wonder how you show up in a negotiation, how your negotiating partner perceives you? If you think about the impression you want to make in advance of your negotiation, you can strategize the approach you will take to get the desired effect. Inevitably, certain postures, comments, gestures, will come to mind about the way you want to appear, and also inevitably, some of these ideas about how to behave, will come to you based on your gender.
In addition to how your own gender orientation will inform your behavior, your negotiating partner will form his, her, their, opinions about you also based on your gender. Why is this so? If you think about the stories you have heard since you were young, you can see that what you learned at home, in school, in your religious institutions, in your community, all have a gender influence. Girls do this and boys do that. As long as you follow the rules it is simple, right?
Well, yes, as long as the world stands still and nothing or no one changes. Otherwise, not that simple. This is because some of the messaging about how we should act according to our gender has been changing over the years, especially when it comes to women. It has not been changing evenly across different parts of society or from culture to culture, and this is where we have clashes that could develop into conflicts.
In recent years, there has been research done that critiques the ways in which women negotiate. In general, and I am speaking in very large generalizations here because of course there are individual differences, women do not assert themselves enough nor do they get as much as men in comparable negotiations. Part of this is due to the nature of the historic messaging women have received and continues to get reinforced as we negotiate our way into peer groups, job positions, romantic relationships, and family dynamics, to name a few. These stories we are socialized into are both explicit and implicit and they strongly influence the personal stories we make about who we should be in the world, how we should behave, and how we should be perceived. The word “should” is used intentionally because these stories that are part of our socialization process create our moral character about what is right and wrong.
Women, for example, have been socialized to be likable, not to make waves, or to cause any disturbances. If they assert themselves to get what they want they are considered aggressive because they have crossed an invisible boundary of how they should behave in that situation and they may get called all sorts of unflattering names. This is even more intense if they are young women because part of that social messaging is to respect elders and any assertions or self-advocacy is perceived as disagreements. Their likability goes down and they are social failures.
These same perceptions carry over into the workplace. There are implicit biases about what is expected from men and women and how they should negotiate. They are judged according to these implicit biases that they have been socialized to maintain in order to be considered mature and desirable. This can be very confusing when newer messages are encouraging women to stand up for what they deserve.
If they do take this on, they are considered sassy or tough. While they may inspire other women they are, at the same time, upsetting the equilibrium that was established and this disturbs the status quo. If there is a change in one part of the system it forces other parts of the system to change or fight back to maintain balance. Society is the larger system and embedded within that are our family and organizational systems. We know how to maintain the status quo, but we do not know how to effectively transform what is, into something more equitable, fair, and sustainable.
I am not encouraging women to go out there and be sassy or aggressive, because that behavior will not build relationships or achieve sustainable wins, short-term gains at best. I am advocating for us to pause and examine the stories we carry with us and ask where they come from, how they are serving us, and how they are getting in our way. It is only when we question these stories we carry and try to rewrite them that true change can happen.
Our language is important. Words matter, and that is why the stories we tell ourselves matter. It permeates our behavior, attitudes, all the way to our brains, as recent advances in neuroscience have taught us. If we tell ourselves we can’t do it, or this other person is a tough negotiator, or the system is stacked against us, then we’ve already failed before we even enter the room to negotiate. Instead, if we spend time preparing for and strengthening our negotiation in advance of actually sitting down at the negotiation table, we enter into the negotiation with higher probability of gaining more. Tell yourself whatever words are personal to you that will give you energy and lift you up.
What works for me, is telling myself, “This is just a conversation and I am really curious about understanding the other person better.” Then I can relax and be open to seeing what is important for the other person and how that interfaces with what I want. I will be able to tailor my communication more effectively and direct us toward meaningful processes and outcomes. We may not get everything we want, but what we will get is a foundation we can revisit again and again in future negotiations because we are building a positive relationship in the process.
This blog is also in Spanish as an article in El Espectador in Colombia, published on December 9th, 2022.